Redford Talks FASD

Redford‘s cabinet signals new, promising directions

Source: EDM – Edmonton Journal
May 10 04:17
Page: A27
Section: Ideas
Edition: Final
Column: Graham Thomson
Byline: Graham Thomson

It was an issue barely mentioned by Premier Alison Redford when she unveiled her new cabinet on Tuesday and it was an issue overlooked by the media.

But it is an issue that perhaps indicates better than any news release or news story how Redford sincerely wants to change how government does business. And she did that by simply mentioning four letters: FASD – the acronym for fetal alcohol spectrum disorder.

“We as a society need to be able to deal with communities and people that are dealing with FASD in a very different way than we have,” Redford told reporters. “We’ve got to do a better job and we’re going to do a better job.”

That was it. No details, no explanation, no hint as to how the government will do a better job of helping those dealing with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. But the fact that Redford – on a day when everybody else wanted to talk about “big” issues such as the new minister of energy or how the finance department is merging with treasury board – would mention a “little” issue indicates what’s going on in the back of her mind and what she sees as priorities.

One of those priorities is dealing with FASD, a chronic problem that Redford encountered repeatedly as Justice minister. A disproportionate number of people with the disorder end up before the courts and in jail. Nobody knows how many inmates suffer from the disorder but some educated guesses place the number in federal prisons at around 25 per cent or higher.

Children with FASD suffer from what effectively is a permanent brain injury caused by the birth mother drinking during pregnancy. That causes behavioural problems: they act on impulse; exhibit astonishingly poor judgment; and fail to realize the consequences of their actions. There are treatments to help the children improve somewhat but there is no cure, so they grow into adults with FASD who, because of their impulsive and irresponsible behaviour, routinely end up in jail.

Alberta has a committee made up of representatives from various departments including Justice and Health to diagnose FASD and counsel those who suffer from the syndrome. It is a never-ending struggle that won’t get any better unless government targets the source, which means convincing mothers to avoid alcohol while pregnant and providing support networks to keep children with the disorder from committing crimes.

As Redford pointed out as Justice minister in 2010: “If you just continue to recycle people through the justice system and you don’t deal with whatever their underlying problems are, it’s not good for them, it’s not good for the community, it’s not good for the justice system and it’s not good for the health system.”

Now that she’s premier with a fresh mandate, Redford is dealing with the problems of FASD by appointing MLA Frank Oberle (a former solicitor general) as an associate minister dedicated to “services for persons with disabilities.”

Redford is tackling this issue the same way she is tackling others: by getting ministries to work together more efficiently or even amalgamating responsibilities into a single department. This is the motivation, for example, behind the ministry of Human Services that replaced the former ministries of Children Services, Housing and Employment to tackle problems ranging from foster care to unemployment to homelessness.

It is a motivation that helps dispel much of the usual skepticism that greets political rhetoric. When the government says “supporting healthy and strong families and communities is an investment in Albertans and Alberta’s future” it might sound like a political cliche but Redford’s motivation is sincere and her restructuring of government holds promise.

In fact, Redford’s premiership holds so much promise that areas of the province which voted against her are optimistic for change.

“I think maybe the election was a little bell that rang for them,” says Medicine Hat mayor Norm Boucher. The election might have been a “little bell” for the government but Tuesday’s cabinet announcement was something of a wake-up gong for many ridings in southern Alberta dealing with the reality that for the first time in living memory they are represented by an opposition MLA and thus are on the outside of government looking in. Politically speaking, rural Alberta is the new Edmonton.

“My hope, personally, is that the provincial government will want to retake these seats in the next election,” says Boucher, who says his city has often felt like the “forgotten corner” of the province the past few years on issues including flood relief and the twinning of Highway 3. “I hope that’s the way they see it so that they can reinvest and pay attention to what we have.”

Redford didn’t mention southern Alberta on Tuesday when she announced her cabinet but that’s largely due to the fact she has nobody in the rural south in her caucus.

And it might be because right now she is focused not on re-gaining southern Alberta but on winning much different challenges – such as helping Albertans throughout the province struggling with the difficult issue of fetal alcohol spectrum disorder.

gthomson@edmontonjournal. com

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